In The Captain Class, Sam Walker presents a simple but compelling premise: what do all the great sports teams have in common?
One thing Captain Class doesn’t attempt to answer is the more provocative but less revealing question of which team is the absolute greatest, but it does set about identifying the greatest teams in sports history and what each of them had in common. What he arrives at is that each of the sixteen greatest sports teams had captains who shunned the spotlight and led through their dedication and communication on the field.
The founder of The Wall Street Journal’s sports coverage, Walker uses sports as both backdrop and source material, yet this is a book about leadership and not sports per se. You don’t have to be a leadership junkie to enjoy The Captain Class, but the book will resonate most strongly with those who have been in or are interested specifically in positions of leadership and how leaders manage, inspire, and get the most out of their followers and/or teammates. Anyone who comes strictly for bar-stool material will likely find Walker’s academically-dense but statistically-light approach a bit difficult to distill onto a chart or a soundbite.
Similarly, those who are interested only in a particular sport or only in U.S. sports might find the chapters devoted to international field hockey, handball, and rugby to be a bit tedious. There’s only one NFL team, one MLB team, and two NBA teams on Walker’s list. On the other hand, reading the book may give you a greater appreciation for the mental and physical toughness displayed by captains in other sports. Part of Walker’s goal is to make a case for the universality of qualities among leaders in a wide range of sports, and in this he succeeds.
This being a Spurs blog, I’ll use Tim Duncan as an example. Walker devotes parts of three chapters to Timmy, describing his style as “lead from the back” (think of Duncan quarterbacking the defense from the low block), using non verbal displays like hugs or affectionate taps on the head, and practical communication such as emoting through his eyes rather than through fiery speeches. Walker isn’t exactly treading new ground here in his assessment of Timmy, but he does admit that even among the top tier captains he discusses (which include the likes of Bill Russell, Yogi Berra, and Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert) Duncan was exceptionally talented and capable of dominant superstar play in every aspect of the game.
If Duncan underwhelmed statistically or stylistically, says Walker, it was a conscious choice for the good of the team rather than any limitation of talent.
But if Duncan is unique even among top-level captains, that probably says something about the organization he captained as well. Indeed, even among the sixteen “Tier One” teams selected by Walker for consideration in the book, the Spurs have enjoyed a protracted run of success since drafting Duncan in 1997.
One of Walker’s criteria for a team to ascend into Tier One is that it’s stretch of dominance must have occurred over a span of four or more years. Smith uses the four year threshold to remove the influence of luck in a team’s success, likening it to the probability of a coin coming up heads twice vs. four times.
A scan of Smith’s “Top Tier” teams reveals that only Russell’s Celtics and Duncan’s Spurs had a run of “freakish success” (his term) longer than nine years. In third place was the Cuban women’s volleyball team which ran from 1991 to 2000. Ten of the sixteen teams had a run of between four and six seasons, just barely cresting Smith’s threshold of sustained, non-lucky success.
I asked Smith about the Spurs, and whether a continued run of success post-Duncan might cause him to reevaluate his premise:
The Captain Class is a must-read for anyone with an interest in leadership or sociology, even if they only have a passing interest in sports. For the Spurs fan, though, I’d recommend it even if you don’t have an interest in those things, and especially if you’ve ever asked yourself how the Spurs stack up against other great teams in history. The answer, at least according to Walker’s research, is that the Spurs’ 20 year run of championship contention is truly unprecedented, and unlikely to occur again any time soon.